Wake schools may back away from testing plan

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 2, 2014 

Wake County school leaders hope to get state permission for an alternative to the plan to make all the district’s third-grade students take 36 mini-tests in the coming months, after facing questions on whether the approach amounts to excessive testing.

School districts across North Carolina are requiring the assessments as a means of creating a track record for each child. Potentially, such a record could show that a child who fails the state’s end-of-grade reading test this spring actually knows the material well enough to move on to fourth grade.

But the plan has produced a backlash from parents, teachers and state legislators who say it’s an overreaction to Read to Achieve, a law passed in 2012 to curb social promotion. School leaders say they’re listening to the concerns.

“As a board and a school system, we support the intent of the legislation, which is to raise literacy,” Wake school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said Friday. “We’re just trying to figure out how to accomplish that goal.”

Kushner said Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill will give an update at Tuesday’s school board meeting on Read To Achieve. Wake’s plan will hinge on a vote the state board of education will take Thursday to allow Wake and other districts to use existing local tests in place of the mini-tests.

Exemptions cover many

Administrators are reviewing options and getting feedback from principals and teachers about whether to offer the 36 tests, said Renee McCoy, a Wake schools spokeswoman.

Under the law, most third-graders must show they’re reading at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade. Most third-graders who fall short on the end-of-grade test will have to go to summer reading camps and pass a standardized test before they move up a grade.

Read to Achieve gives five “good cause exemptions” to promote a third-grade student who doesn’t pass the reading exam. Many of the exemptions fit only certain categories of students: those who have a learning disability, were held back more than once already or have been in an English as a Second Language program for less than two years.

A potentially broader exemption in the law allows students to show through a “reading portfolio” that they’re proficient.

The portfolio includes 36 assessments covering 12 reading standards. Students are to read a passage that’s 1 1/2 pages, then answer five multiple-choice questions.

Traditional-calendar students were to have begun taking the mini-tests last week before the inclement weather put things on hold. Year-round students began taking the tests in January.

Some students already meet goals

Last month, Wake school officials said the state’s largest districts planned to require all third-grade students to take the portfolio’s mini-assessments to avoid missing any students who fail the end-of-grade exam. They noted that only 45 percent of the state’s third-grade students passed the new state reading exam last year.

But news of the widespread use of the portfolios drew immediate fallout.

“There’s too much of a one-size-fits-all approach,” Ellis Hankins, a parent of a third-grade student at Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh, said Friday. “Not all children learn at the same rate. Instead of more testing, we need more focused and differentiated instruction.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson sent a memo to school districts saying the portfolios aren’t meant to be given to all students. She also said that students who scored high enough on a beginning-of-grade reading test have already met promotion requirements.

At a legislative hearing last week, Republican lawmakers accused the state Department of Public Instruction of botching the startup of Read to Achieve. Atkinson, a Democrat, said the department did what the law required but suggested the legislature make some rules more flexible.

‘Any reasonable alternative’ sought

Locally, Kushner said school board members have heard from parents and teachers who say the mini-tests are excessive. Among those have been Hankins, who is executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, and his wife, Leanne Winner, chief lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association.

Hankins and other Lacy parents asked the school board at a meeting last month to not require all students to take the portfolio tests. Hankins said that, at a minimum, Wake should exempt students who passed the beginning-of-grade test.

Thirty percent of Wake’s 12,000 third-grade students scored high enough on the beginning-of-grade exam to meet the promotion requirements, said McCoy, the Wake schools spokeswoman.

Wake is one of 28 school districts that has asked for permission to use local alternative tests to show students are meeting the Read to Achieve requirements.

Hankins welcomed Wake’s efforts to seek an alternative.

“I want them to consider any reasonable alternative that avoids duplicative testing that takes away from learning,” he said.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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